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Maggie Brown: Charles III is Tim Pigott-Smith’s powerful swansong

John Shrapnel and Tim Pigott-Smith in King Charles III. Photo: BBC/Drama Republic/Robert Viglasky
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When ITV screened the Olivier Awards last month it managed to attract just over a million viewers, a measly 5% of the audience. It was easily beaten on the night by the animal stars and keepers of Channel 4’s The Secret Life of the Zoo, based in Chester.

In fairness, the producers tried hard to make the Olivier ceremony accessible, but the basic problem is that, alas, only a tiny fraction of people ever get to see West End plays and musicals, due to price, location and size of venues. A real shame. And actors being awarded prizes can make for pretty tedious viewing – even if you are lucky enough to know the productions in competition, or love the stars being honoured.

One of the conventional responses to the problem of accessibility is to argue for an even more relentless push to simulcast live theatre, opera and ballet in venues across the country, and not just those receiving public subsidy. Indeed, it is easy to overlook what the simple act of sharing can mean in a small town, as I know well. A local weekly paper in the part of Wales I escape to ran a prominent story about the screening of the Old Vic’s brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In Bungay, in Suffolk, recently crowned one of the best places to live in the UK, the fact its small Georgian theatre has been rescued, reopened as a venue, and runs a range of live-screen events is a contributing factor to its popularity. Yet many rural areas have no communal screens, and cinemas continue to close.

So BBC2’s smart decision to order a made-for-television version of the astonishing, near-to-the knuckle fantasy King Charles III, broadcast yesterday (May 10), offers an innovative approach for playwrights and casts.

Read our review of King Charles III

The TV version, compared with the theatre play, has a pared-back script, and is an hour shorter than the stage version: sightings of the ghost of Princess Diana remain.

Rupert Goold, the director, said he had been able to draw on his experience of the BBC’s Hollow Crown Shakespeare cycle.

So, where the theatre play was minimalist, and tended towards dark clothes, this has magnificent settings and crowd scenes (around Leeds). Mike Bartlett, the writer, stuck to the original blank verse, which the cast, speaking after a BAFTA preview last week, said made it easy to memorise.

Having done so many performances, from the Almeida to New York, they were totally comfortable in the parts. With the sudden death of the lead Tim Pigott-Smith, the BAFTA screening was a homage, with the family present.

It is wonderful to have a TV version of his great performance, accessible to millions now and in the future, which Goold said “did feel was very special to him, the idea tickled him, he just tore into it”.

Although, Goold added, Pigott-Smith didn’t watch the film, as it was edited, treating the offer with “cold suspicion”.

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